TAMPA — With less than three weeks before the November election, fliers have landed in Hillsborough County mailboxes attacking the record of incumbent State Attorney Mark Ober on sex crime prosecutions.
The mailers, sent by the state Democratic Party in support of challenger Andrew Warren, depict local residents voicing disgust over Ober's handling of two cases. The ads accuse him of letting rapists go free.
"Mr. Ober, rape is rape," one flier states.
The campaign literature and related TV spots play off criticisms Warren raised at a Sept. 2 Tiger Bay Club of Tampa luncheon and again in two news releases later that month.
The ads have drawn repeated responses from Ober's campaign, which has sought to debunk accusations that the cases were mishandled.
"These are clearly a distortion of the truth," Ober said.
Beneath the political mudslinging are two complicated criminal cases, one still pending, the other long resolved. In interviews, two Ober assistants spoke about the closed case.
A victim weighed in, too.
The former Plant High student said Friday the ads have gone too far and opened old wounds.
She said she never gave permission for anyone to exploit her experience.
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The case came to light after a 14-year-old girl told a therapist she had sex one night in 2003 with four young men, all ages 17 and 18. The therapist alerted police.
Investigators learned she had been intoxicated. She told them the sex was consensual, but in Florida a 14-year-old can't consent to sex. The age of consent is 18, or 16 if the parties are close in age.
As the state prepared a case for lewd and lascivious battery — a charge punishable by up to 15 years in prison — the need for the girl to testify became clear to prosecutors. Defense attorneys for the four young men intended to try to discredit the girl if the case went to trial, said Mike Sinacore, the chief assistant state attorney who prosecuted them.
"The victim wanted there to be a prosecution. The family wanted there to be a prosecution," Sinacore said. "However, it was clear from our conversations that they would prefer a resolution so that she would not have to go through a very public trial."
The state consulted with Steve Crawford, the attorney who represented the girl's family. The family agreed to a plea deal for lesser charges of felony battery, Sinacore said.
"It was the type of case that no matter what you did, you could be criticized," Sinacore said. "But it's what we thought was the right thing to do for her. And her family also expressed that they did not want to ruin the lives of the boys as well."
The four were sentenced to probation, ordered to undergo counseling and pay $20,000 restitution.
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On Friday, the girl, now 27, released a written statement through Crawford.
"Thirteen years ago," it said, "I was the victim in a horrific case that is currently being used as a political football for the vicious race to the State Attorney's Office of Hillsborough County.
"Now I am being completely revictimized as the details of my case have been brought up and are being used as political slander from one campaign against the other. By doing so, they have opened old wounds that took years to heal; it is inexcusable and appalling.
"To be clear, I have never given permission for my case to be exploited and I also never said I was okay with how the case was handled."
She said victims in such cases may be subjected to ridicule and judgment. That was part of what influenced the decision not to go to trial.
The Tampa Bay Times is not identifying the victim or her family because of the nature of the crime.
In the 12 years since the case was resolved, she has left Hillsborough County but still lives in the region.
"I will never fully recover from the incident that night and the horrible aftermath," she said. "I ask that all political propaganda that reference this case be removed from any campaign material to allow my family and myself to continue to heal and recover."
The mother said the family wasn't happy with the outcome of the case but went along with the plea agreement because it seemed like their only choice.
"The system does not treat victims of sexual assault fairly," she said.
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The mother's misgivings came as a surprise to Sinacore.
"If they said they were dissatisfied, I know that's not what was communicated to me," he said.
For seasoned prosecutors like Rita Peters, who heads the state attorney's sex crimes division, it is normal for victims to feel unsettled after a case is resolved, an effect of the deep emotional scars they may carry with them.
"I think you can talk to any mental health specialist who deals with victims of trauma and they will go through the gamut of emotions," Peters said.
Peters, who is known for her dogged pursuit of justice in sex cases, and who admits that many of them affect her personally, takes the current political fodder as an insult and fears it could deter victims from coming forward.
"It's very personal because prosecuting sex crimes is not an easy task," Peters said. "It changes you. It's scarring. There are many days when I leave the office and wish I could put bleach on my brain."
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On the campaign trail, Ober has decried the attacks on his record as "reckless" and "distorted." His campaign has issued statements in response to the mailers, clarifying the facts of the cases Warren's campaign has targeted.
"It's unfortunate that (the 2004 case) has been resurrected and she has been re-victimized by Mr. Warren during the course of a political campaign," Ober said. "That is outrageous."
He has also sought to tout his support for crime victims, releasing a TV ad featuring the widow of a fallen Tampa police officer, who praised Ober for his compassion and support.
Warren's campaign noted that the recent flurry of ads against Ober came from the state Democratic party. But they don't dismiss the criticisms raised in the ads.
"Twelve years later, Mark Ober still doesn't get it," Warren said in an emailed statement. "The fact is that we have a State Attorney who hasn't been tough on sexual assault and who hasn't stood with victims. And the fact is, that will change when I'm State Attorney."
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.